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Time To Scrap The Railway Budget?

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It took three years for the Acworth Committee recommendations of 1921 to separate the Railway Budget from the Union Budget to be implemented. It’s been a good 90 years since the split happened in 1924. At that time, the railway budget accounted for 70 per cent of the country’s budget. Today, it accounts for less than 15 per cent of the Union Budget.

The idea behind the separation was to make the railways financially autonomous. Ninety years later, we all know that is simply not the case. The whole idea behind the railway ministry was to provide largesse to their constituencies in the form of new trains. Over the past decade, the railway ministry has been held by allies of the UPA that included Mamata Banerjee (Trinamul Congress) and Lalu Prasad Yadav (Rashtriya Janata Dal).

There was no focus on improving the quality of the network. What no minister looked at was to beef up the network. That shows in the numbers. In 1950, the Indian Railways had a network of 53,596 route kilometres. In the 64 years since then, the railways have managed to add a mere 11,004 route kilometres of track. That’s just 172 kilometres a year. In sharp contrast, China which had 21,800 route kilometres in 1950 now has 103,144 route kilometres. Forget that, it added 12,800 kilometres of high speed track; which is more than the entire distance added by India.

Much before the Modi government presents its first railway budget in Parliament, railway minister Sadananda Gowda has gone ahead and hiked passenger fares by 14.2 per cent and freight by 6.5 per cent. That gives him a cushion to begin with. It’s time Modi and his minister talk in terms of expanding the network faster, add manufacturing capacity, introduce faster trains initially leading to super fast trains over the next few years and improve on safety and cleanliness.

Read Also: Putting Railways On Track

To do that, the railways should be run as a professional enterprise. It should go ahead and split the railways into a series of corporations that compete. It has already set up many corporations—RITES, IRCTC, Konkan Railway Corporation, High Speed Rail Corporation, Railtel and Indian Railway Finance Corporation.

Next, it is time the government went ahead and scrapped the Railway Budget. What India needs is a professionally run railways. So will the Modi government go ahead and do something that has been suggested many times over, but which no government has gone ahead and done?

That shall be clear in the next few hours.